Pitfalls of desensitisation

By Sindhoor Pangal, Bangalore Mirror Bureau | Nov 16, 2015, 09.56 PM IST

Desensitization, desensitisation, training, dog training, stress, fear
Don’t train when your dog is stressed

This Diwali, most pet parents would have struggled, trying to deal with their dog’s fear of firecrackers. A strategy some people might use is to expose the dog to that very fear in the hope that sufficient exposure will eventually put the dog in a place where he is no more sensitive to it. Hence the term ‘desensitisation’. It’s used for many different kinds of fears.

My swim coach tried it with me years ago. I was thrown into the deep end of the pool to help me conquer my fear. But the technique backfired. I developed such a deep aversion to water that at the very smell of chlorine I would start vomiting profusely. I eventually conquered my fear of water years later, when everyone stopped trying and I ventured into the water myself, at my own pace and of my own volition. After all, fearis personal and conquering it is a personal journey. So what went wrong with the desensitisation efforts?

Desensitisation works on the premise that when exposed to a fear in a very low dose, the subject uses the rational part of his brain and realises that this is not causing him any harm. Thus he figures out that there is no reason for him to be afraid. Because this technique relies heavily on this ability to reason – and dogs reason – it works.

However, if the stimulation puts the dog beyond the threshold of fear, then the rational part of the dog’s brain stops functioning and the emotional part of the brain takes over. When the rational part is shut off, the very ability that the technique relies on is unavailable for the exercise. At this point the exercise needs to stop. That is what should have happened with my swim lessons too. The exercise should have stopped and resumed when I was calmer. I should have been kept under my threshold of fear, gradually exposing me to water. That did not happen. The problem with a time like Diwali is that there is no opportunity to “end the exercise”. The firecrackers just go on and on for days.
What happens when the exercise continues when the dog is already showing signs of fear? Since his brain cannot actually reason, he just panics more and more to a point where he does not realise that he was in no real danger.

Eventually, all he remembers is this trauma. In the future, the slightest sound will immediately transport him to the trauma experienced in the past, and he makes the emotional switch sooner. In effect, instead of getting desensitised, he is further sensitised to the stimulus. This is similar to me reacting just to the smell of chlorine. A dog that is subject to something like this, without having an option of getting out, might completely shut down. To an untrained eye, this can look like the dog calming down, while in fact it’s the opposite. A shut down dog is at danger of side effects such as depression, aggression, learned helplessness and in extreme cases, even a heart attack.

If you want your dog to conquer the fear, it has to happen when he is in a position to think. Diwali would be akin to the deep end of the pool, was it my case. The deep end is meant for someone who has worked through his fear. It’s not a way to get over the fear. Take it easy during Diwali. Your dog’s mind might be a screaming mess. Provide him with strength and comfort. Attempts at training can wait.

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